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Natural Resource Governance around the World

The struggle against Land Grabbing in Mali

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This article is taken from the document : Take Back the Land! The Social Function of Land and Housing, Resistances and Alternatives. Collection Passerelle, 10, Ritimo/Aitec/Citego, 25 March 2014. (To access to the complete document click here :

From the Social Function of Land to Land as a Commodity

Beyond its productive, environmental and economic functions, land has a crucial social function. Societies were built on land and natural resources. Human beings have given land two main functions: a nourishing function (hunting, picking, fishing, caring) and a spiritual function, by which some spaces are symbolic, others are key to initiation and others are taboo.

Gradually, land was domesticated and farming and livestock developed, leading to settlement and the idea of land and natural resource management. Increasing population growth and urbanisation have changed our relationship to land, even more so as over the last few centuries our social organisation has been based on capitalism and liberalism. This vision has changed the paradigm of the social function of land: land has been cut off from its social functions to become a “soul-less” commodity for sale, speculation and profit. The notion of ownership lies at the very heart of this approach. Mother Earth has been completely cut off from her social functions, as well as her environmental functions. From a common good, land has become a private commodity. How was this shift performed on the African continent, in western Africa and more specifically in Mali?

The Colonial Legacy of Land Grabbing

Land is a source of life for humanity. It has a marked social function for collective management, as village chiefs perform the management of land as property: land is collective, granted to families or lineages even though this distribution was often discriminatory (against women, youth, migrants…). Land was managed within a space where farm land, fallow land and grazing land were mixed and rights of use and customary rights were passed on from generation to generation.

Nowadays, in many western African countries, land ownership has been taken over by the state. This has led to much abuse including land grabbing. The social function of land as well as its environmental, economic and spiritual function has been overlooked in the process. This shift took place at the same time as colonisation. There are different figures but approximately 80 to 200 million hectares are concerned. According to the most conservative estimate, this land could be redistributed by plots of 3 ha 1 of arable/irrigated land to 26.7 million families 2, considering there are 20 to 30 members in a family, including 2 or 3 active workers who themselves make up a household. The 14 million dollars exclusively destined to bio-fuel and the 11 million dollars of grants for the year 2006 could benefit over 4.5 million families and help them develop a lasting peasant farming activity, based on the promotion of agro-ecology. It must be noted that the rural world represents 80% of the population, 75% of employment and over 40% of the overall GDP in western African countries.

In Mali, the state has been giving land away: it is displayed on geographical maps specially drawn up for investors, based on satellite data. How can a satellite map be grounds for stating that arable land is available? These arable lands have been occupied by peasants’ families for generations. They have preserved the land through collective management, often with great wisdom and environment- and territorial-friendly farming practices.

Millions of hectares of living spaces cannot be seen from the sky. These include corridors and spaces for transhumance, picking activities (food, or plants and trees with medicinal virtues), woods, fallow land, hunting, fishing, sacred space… There is no way of representing the natural balance of ecosystems on satellite maps.

More important still, the lifestyles, culture and knowledge of local populations are neglected: this land is managed according to ancestral rights of use which are not formally registered with land authorities. The assumption, like during the French colonisation, is that this land is “vacant and masterless”!

An Increase of Land Grabbing in Mali

Land grabbing, which has been encouraged by the state’s assumption regarding ownership, has increased recently. The state makes inhabitants leave the area without respecting any rules whatsoever, even less so international conventions or human rights. Whether in urban, peri-urban or rural areas, inhabitants are dispossessed of their land and their homes in the name of urbanisation, neighbourhood development or agro-industrial projects – most often by force.

Indeed, the three tools used by the state and investors at the expense of inhabitants are corruption, the elite’s connections to administration and justice and the reliance on law enforcement. These last ten years, land deeds have appeared magically, sometimes up to three times for the same plot of land. The impunity of these actions and the state’s lack of organisation regarding the enforcement of the rule of law are leading to disastrous situations on the ground. Public policy which should govern and protect the people of Mali has been misappropriated by private interests, who only care about themselves.

Urban, Peri-Urban, Rural: Land Grabbing by Speculation

Land grabbing does not only concern rural land: in urban areas, whole neighbourhoods are seized to satisfy the appetites of real estate developers with the frequent excuse of “embellishing” cities thanks to the addition of an airport or supermarkets, which entail major waves of forced evictions. These neighbourhood enhancement projects involve evictions, the demolition of old housing and much profit for the developers. They are aided by local authorities in their endeavour to house new categories of inhabitants, thus violently evicting most of the population, usually without compensation or rehousing.

In the context of urban sprawl, peri-urban land is also quite coveted: all the farmland in these areas, including villages, is at the centre of negotiations – or rather land scheming – at the inhabitants’ expense. Land grabbing has terrible effects. Its negative impact demonstrates how crucial the social function of land is for village life, as well as for urban and peri-urban territories.

This is the context for the coordination organised by the Union/Uacdddd with inhabitants in neighbourhoods of Bamako threatened by massive evictions. In addition to this coordination, a few years ago, the Union/Uacdddd decided to go out into the field and meet people house by house to create solidarity and build collective struggles with the peasants in villages menaced by land grabbing and destruction. Today, nearly 300 villages are members of the Union/No-Vox Mali.

This led the movements, organisations and unions to create the CMAT 3 to share their analysis and take action together. A collectively performed study in different villages concerned by land grabbing and supported by the CMAT in their struggle leads us to conclude that:

— Inhabitants now realize that they are not viewed as actual players in the situation – land grabbing is carried out without consultation or dialogue. Thus, thousands of men and women are neglected when weighed against the appetites of investors, who act with the complicity of governments and local authorities.

— In addition to losing their land, access to natural resources and water, the inhabitants are victims of repression – pregnant women have lost their babies – some are gassed or imprisoned for months for no reason.

— “We don’t have anything left, I’ve never had to buy millet and now I have to and my cup isn’t full” 4. Jewellery, loincloths – everything has been sold to resist.

— Areas considered as Mali’s grain attic, with peasants who fed their own families as well as the Malian population, have been degraded to areas that aren’t fertile enough to guarantee their food sovereignty. They are forced to replace basic grains such as millet and sorghum by rice.

— Able workers leave the village to work in other fields, sometimes over 20 kilometres away.

— Young women head off to urban centres to be exploited as maids.

— Young and older men risk their lives doing gold washing, crossing the Mediterranean or even enlisting in armed groups.

— Investors’ works disturb usual transit channels, for instance, in Sanamadougou the investor Modibo Keita built a canal without building a bridge, thus forcing villagers to travel 10 km to reach a village or other places such as the health centre 40 km away. A young father drowned and the law enforcement agents in the investor’s building cause the villagers numerous nuisances everyday.

— The chemicals sprayed on the seized land make women and children sick and they cannot afford health care.

— Bulldozers destroy harvests, trees, houses, cemeteries, religious spaces, etc.

Land grabbing totally besmirches the social function of land. Men and women are questioning their social role and their say as citizens of their country. Social organisation and territorial identity are radically called into question. Customary rights are denied, including the role of village chiefs. As a direct consequence of this situation, each village or territory member’s role is disturbed and many families are breaking up.

Land is a major issue in Mali. The struggle carried out by movements, organisations and unions gathered within the CMAT to ensure respect and enforcement of inhabitants’ rights in urban and rural areas has many different expressions: meetings, protest rallies, legal aid and counselling. It also relies on international solidarity.

1 In Africa and Asia, the average is 1.6 ha (Via Campesina meeting books, São Paulo, September 21 st to 30 th 2011)

2 A family is made up of 20 to 30 members including 2-3 active workers who themselves constitute a household.

3 CMAT: The Malian Group Against Land Grabbing – Convergence malienne contre les accaparements de terres – is composed by 5 organisations: AOPP (Associations des Organisations de Professionnelles paysannes, Professional Peasant Organisations Group); CAD-Mali (Coalition des Alternatives Africaines, Coalition of African Alternatives); CNOP-Mali (Coordination Nationale des Organisations Paysannes du Mali, National Coordination of Malian Peasant organisations); LJDH (Ligue des Jeunes Juristes pour le Développement Humain, League of Young Legal Experts for Human Development); and UACDDDD (Union des Associations et Coordination d’Associations pour le Développement et la Défense des Droits des Démunis, Union of Organisations and Coordination for Development and the Defence of the Rights of the Underprivileged.

4 All accounts are from land grabbing victims and were collected during our numerous trips and studies in villages.